Sermon Notes 24/11/12 - VaYetze / Tefillah 5

תפלה: Private and Public Prayer – the Challenges

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here, here and here.

At the start of this week’s parashah, we find Ya’akov unexpectedly stopping his journey for the night; as he lay down, he made a makeshift pillow or barrier from stones.  Based on a difficulty in the text, Rashi comments:

The stones began to squabble, each saying, ‘let the righteous man rest his head on me’.  God transformed them into a single stone... (Rashi to BeReishit 28:11, based on Chullin 91b)

A parallel midrash (BeReishit Rabbah 68:11) casts Ya’akov wondering whether he would simply transmit the monotheistic ideal to a single inheritor, like his father and grandfather before him, or if he would be able to establish the twelve tribes of Israel, the beginning of the Jewish People.  When

...the twelve stones amalgamated, Ya’akov knew that he would establish the twelve tribes.

This midrash highlights a general difficulty with religious life – maintaining the correct balance between individual aspirations and one’s membership of a people or community – a group with a single, shared purpose.  This is especially acute when it comes to prayer, as highlighted by the following message which recently appeared in my Inbox:

Are you going to touch on how to daven in a collective where the man behind intones out loud and out of tune, your neighbour comes to shul for social reasons and someone's gorgeous child decides it is screaming time? How to use the mantra of familiar prayers as a launch-pad to lift you over and above the immediate interruptions and distractions of praying in a kahal? That's the baton I would so like you to pass on so that I do not continue to believe I can best step out beyond myself when I am by myself.

The question is not easy to answer, but a good starting point is acknowledging that from time to time I also have the same thoughts – while I love our Shul, sometimes private or spontaneous prayer works better for me.  I suspect this is true for all of us.

Not talking during davening may seem novel to some, but is really essential for creating an appropriate environment as well as showing respect for others and their own ‘prayer space’.  I know that the urge to talk In Shul can sometimes be overpowering, but when it strikes, please consider going out until it passes.

It’s also important to remind ourselves that public prayer was never intended to replace personal and spontaneous prayer.  In fact, they are interdependent.  The Rizhyner Rebbe told the story of a small Jewish town which had almost every amenity – a bathhouse, cemetery and even a hospital, as well as every artisan, except for one – there was no watchmaker.  Inevitably, all the clocks became increasingly inaccurate with no one to repair them.  Some people chose to let their clocks just run down, but others decided to keep winding them every day even though they showed the wrong time.  One day, a watchmaker appeared in town and everyone rushed to him with their clocks.  The only one he could repair were those that had been kept running; the abandoned ones had become too rusty.  The application is obvious – to keep our ‘prayer’ faculty well-oiled, we must maintain our regular public prayers, even when they seem substandard and fall short of our expectations.

These ideas are thoughtfully explored by Professor A.J. Heschel:

We have stressed the fact that prayer is an event that begins in the individual soul. We have not dwelled upon how much our ability to pray depends upon our being a part of a community 

It is not safe to pray alone. Tradition insists that we pray with, and as a part of, the community; that public worship is preferable to private worship. Here we are faced with an aspect of the polarity of prayer. There is a permanent union between individual worship and community worship, each of which depends for its existence upon the other. To ignore their spiritual symbiosis will prove fatal to both...

Those who cherish genuine prayer, yet feel driven away from the houses of worship because of the sterility of public worship today, seem to believe that private prayer is the only way. Yet, the truth is that private prayer will not survive unless it is inspired by public prayer. The way of the recluse, the exclusive concern with personal salvation, piety in isolation from the community is an act of impiety... (Man’s Quest for God, pp. 44-5)

I am particularly taken with Heschel’s assertion that personal prayer cannot survive unless it is inspired by public prayer.  Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik develops the need for prayer with a community to ensure that we do not become too entrenched in our individual needs:

The prayerful community must not, likewise, remain a two-fold affair: a transient "I" addressing himself to the eternal "He."The inclusion of others is indispensable. Man should avoid praying for himself alone. The plural form of prayer is of central Halakhic significance. When disaster strikes, one must not be immersed completely in his own passional destiny, thinking exclusively of himself, being concerned only with himself, and petitioning God merely for himself. (The Lonely Man of Faith)

Of course, public prayer, with all its challenges, is actually a collection of private prayers, and is dependent on each individual for his or her contribution.  On this, Heschel again:

Even the worth of public worship depends upon the depth of private worship, of the private worship of those who worship together. We are taught that the fate of all mankind depends upon the conduct of one single individual, namely you. (ibid. p. 46)

Sermon Notes 17/11/12 - Toldot / Tefillah 4

תפלה: Mechitzah, Responsibility and Transformation

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here and here.

It is worthwhile clarifying the role of the mechitzah (separation between men and women) in our Shul.  In the 19th century, a group of influential Hungarian rabbis insisted that the function of a Shul mechitzah is to completely separate the men and women, ensuring that they cannot see each other.  These rabbis went as far as saying that a Shul in which men and women can see each other does not qualify as a place for Jewish prayer.  Many other halachic authorities rejected this view and determined that the mechitzah serves only to prevent social intercourse between the genders during prayer and need not be opaque.  This is the view of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, and the one that is followed in all ‘modern’ Shuls, including our own.  Indeed, our temporary mechitzah, designed for the ‘New Minyan’, was built to Rabbi Feinstein’s specifications, mentioned in Igrot Moshe Orech Chaim 1:39-42.  While we work on redeveloping our Shul space, we will continue to discuss the style and design of the new mechitzah and how exactly we will use it to divide our prayer space.

In a previous thought on Tefillah, I referred to Professor A.J. Heschel’s concern about the great responsibility to create a meaningful experience that falls to those running communities:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

Heschel, a genius from a Polish Chassidic background, was frustrated by the sterile prayer environment he encountered in mid-20th century Conservative America.  Thank God, our community does not resemble the one he describes, nor does it reflect the aspirations of any of us, yet overstated as it is, it’s worth reading.  (Note that where Heschel uses the word ‘Temple’, we would substitute ‘Shul’ or ‘Synagogue’.)

Has the temple become the graveyard where prayer is buried? There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray? There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?

Of course, people still attend “services”—but what does this attendance frequently mean to them? Outpouring of the soul? Worship? Prayer, temple attendance has become a service of the community rather than service of God. People give some of their money to philanthropic causes, and some of their time to the temple.

The modem temple suffers from a severe cold. Congregants preserve a respectful distance between the liturgy and themselves. They say the words, “Forgive us for we have sinned,” but of course, they are not meant. They say, “Thou shalt love the Lord Thy Cod with all thy heart ...” in lofty detachment, in complete anonymity as if giving an impartial opinion about an irrelevant question.

An air of tranquillity, complacency prevails in our houses of worship. What can come out of such an atmosphere? The services are prim, the voice is dry, the temple is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony. You know no one will scream, no one will cry, the words will be still-born.

(I might add in jest – and you know that no one will hear you scream – RHB)

People expect the rabbi to conduct a service: an efficient, expert service. But efficiency and rapidity are no remedy against devotional sterility.

We have developed the habit of praying by proxy. Many congregants seem to have adopted the principle of vicarious prayer. The rabbi or the cantor does the praying for the congregation. Men and women would not raise their voices, unless the rabbi issues the signal. Alas, they have come to regard the rabbi as master of ceremonies.

Is not their mood, in part, a reflection of our own uncertainties? Prayer has become an empty gesture, a figure of speech. (ibid. p. 50)

This powerful passage requires no comment, other than to say that we’ve all been to Shuls that look like this.  Heschel effectively captures the sterility of the ‘someone in the middle will do it for you’ model.

On the topic of sterility, in the third verse of this week’s parashah, the unusual word(עתר)  appears in two different forms:

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַידֹוָד לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ יְדֹוָד וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

Yitzchak entreated God concerning his wife, for she was barren, and God was entreated by him, and Rivkah, his wife, conceived. (BeReishit 25:21:Translation – New Hirsch Chumash)

Real prayer is one in which the supplicant entreats God and, in response, God ‘allows’ Himself to be entreated.  According to a midrash, the word עתר means a hoe – a tool used to turn – transform – plants.  The message is clear – if we expect God to ‘transform’ Himself and respond to our prayer, we must first transform ourselves though prayer.

Sermon Notes 10/11/12 - Chayey Sarah / Tefillah 3

תפלה: Connection, Engagement and the Mind-Body Experience

Continuing thoughts on Tefillah, which began here and continued here.

This week’s parashah begins with the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah in Chevron as a burial plot for the patriarchs and matriarchs.  The word Hebrew Chevron comes from לחבר – to connect, and suggests a sensitivity to the co-existence of body and soul, something those buried in Chevron epitomised.  A midrash notes that the reward of those buried in the Cave was ‘doubled and redoubled’ (BeReishit Rabbah 58:8), indicating that in their lifetime, they lived complex existences – melding their physical and spiritual sides.  This is the very essence of Jewish life.  It pits Judaism against other religious systems, which either divide the two or disregard physicality altogether.

In his essay ‘Law and Morality in Jewish Tradition’, Professor Eliezer Berkovits explains that the soul and body must not ‘exist parallel to each other as the religion of the soul and as that of the body.  The mitzvah is the union of the two’.  He continues:

Through the mitzva, man overcomes the dualism of his nature in the God-oriented deed.  In the mitzva, man is one; as a whole he relates himself to the one God.

This holistic approach must also be reflected in our approach to prayer, and again distinguishes Jewish prayer:

All my bones shall say, ‘O Lord, who is like You?’ (Tehillim 35:10)

Professor Berkovits explains:

Man’s situation requires that his very bones should be capable of “prayer”.  But this is only possible if prayer too becomes a mitzva, unifying body and soul.  It has to be a physical action, informed by intention...  The prayer of man should be human and not angelic.

For Berkovits, the ability to ‘unify body and soul’ defines Jewish religious experience and is best articulated through prayer.  Berkovits attacks Immanuel Kant, for whom ‘the true moral service of God is... invisible, i.e., it is only the service of the heart, in spirit and in truth, and it may consist... only of intention’ (Religion within the Limits of Reason).  Berkovits is certain that this approach produces what he calls the ‘historic bankruptcy of all “natural”, as well as “spiritual”, religions’ and assures his reader that human prayer that doesn’t fully engage the body and soul not only fails to qualify as a Jewish experience, but actually:

...makes the dualism of his nature itself a religion... he will have God “in his heart” and some devil directing his actions.  He will serve God on the Sabbath and himself the rest of the week.

Not only our hearts and minds, but our lips and bodies must sing and dance in prayer.  Jewish prayer can never be performed on our behalf by someone in the middle of the Shul; it demands of us that we participate, not watch, that we sing, not listen; Shul services are not concerts, although there is surely a place for them.  We must ensure that our Baaley Tefillah challenge each of us to engage our bodies and souls in a single experience, to lead us in inspirational tunes that all of us will want to sing.  Only this will enable us to be transformed, not merely entertained, by the tefillah experience, to be players and not spectators. Only this, not the bifurcated alternative, is Jewish prayer and only this will enable us to thrive as individuals and as a community, enlivening ourselves in the presence of the Almighty.

Having one minyan makes this challenging, as people have different ideas as to what the service should look like and in which style it should be led.  It’s made still more challenging as there are numerous local alternatives of every type and at every time, which are welcoming and close by.  One thing’s certain – if we offer a style of service that some favour, but a number of people don’t like, they simply won’t attend, something we can’t countenance.  Not offering an alternative also means only providing services that everyone, or at least as many as possible, find palatable.

We’ll get there, but it will take forbearance and good humour from all of us as we adjust to the new space and what works best there.

Sermon Notes 20/10/12 - Noach / Tefillah 2

תפלה: Standing before God, the Quill of the Soul and Participation

In last week’s instalment, I posed a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik:

1) When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven or to have davened?

We ought to consider whether we view prayer as something to get out of the way – simply to meet an obligation, to be, as they say ‘yotze’, or if the process of prayer itself is a meaningful experience.  My favourite passage in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ reads:

Prayer is basically an awareness of man finding himself in the presence of and addressing himself to his Maker, and to pray has one connotation only: to stand before God. To be sure, this awareness has been objectified and crystallized in standardized, definitive texts whose recitation is obligatory. The total faith commitment tends always to transcend the frontiers of fleeting, amorphous subjectivity and to venture into the outside world of the well-formed, objective gesture. However, no matter how important this tendency on the part of the faith commitment is—and it is of enormous significance in the Halakhah which constantly demands from man that he translate his inner life into external facticity—it remains unalterably true that the very essence of prayer is the covenantal experience of being together with and talking to God and that the concrete performance such as the recitation of texts represents the technique of implementation of prayer and not prayer itself.

I particularly like the last line of this excerpt, which insists that our services are a means to prayer, but not prayer itself.  Clearly, for Rabbi Soloveitchik, prayer is about the encounter with the divine, the moment of communion, the privilege of standing before God, something every human being should crave – it is not so much about outcome, but process.

2) Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Rebbe of Lubavitch is quoted as saying:

הלשון היא קולמוס הלב והניגון הוא קולמוס הנפש

The tongue is the quill of the heart and music is the quill of the soul

Our prayer experience must be at once personal, yet shared and combine the ‘two quills’ – the tongue and the heart, allowing us to articulate our feelings, needs, fears and aspirations within the context of engaging, participatory, communal services.  Each of us is responsible for the atmosphere in our Shul, ensuring that it is welcoming, spiritual and purposeful.  As Professor A.J. Heschel remarks:

Ours is a great responsibility.  We demand that people come to worship instead of playing golf, or making money, or going on a picnic.  Why?  Don’t we mislead them?  People take their precious time off to attend service.  Some even arrive with profound expectations.  But what do they get?  What do they receive? (Man’s Quest for God, p. 51)

What we will ensure those attending receive is an opportunity to sing along in a joint, yet personal experience.  There is room in our community for different styles of davenning – from the traditional to the modern, but all Baaley Tefillah must bear in mind that fostering communal participation, principally singing, is vital.  This way, we can all enjoy a varied, unifying experience that leaves us moved and, hopefully, meets our ‘profound expectations’.

3) Turning to more prosaic matters, we will experiment with commencing the Shabbat morning service at 9.30am, with a slightly earlier start on special or longer services; the goal is to finish regularly no later than 11.40am.  It’s important that we don’t convey the idea that Shul and Shabbat are synonymous – even during the winter there must be time to enjoy Shabbat lunch and spend some time with family or friends.  Shul is a central and vital part of the Shabbat experience, but there is more to Shabbat than attending a service.

4) Finally, a challenge from the Rokeach (Eli’ezer of Worms, d. 1238).  He is supposed to have said that the most difficult daily challenge within a daily religious life is to pray with proper intention.  How do we relate to this?

Sermon Notes 13/10/12 - BeReishit / Tefillah 1

תפלה: Meaning, Experience and a Challenge

Over the coming weeks, our community will be in a transitional phase as we begin to recreate our ‘prayer space’ in the redeveloping building.  It’s clearly really important that we do this in a way that all of us can really enjoy the new space and so I’ve decided to devote this and the next few Shabbat-morning sermons to considering our prayer experience and what our expectations can and must be of it.  I plan to cajole, reprioritise and challenge to ensure we get this right, but this week, some basics.

1) What is the meaning of תפלה – the word most commonly used for prayer?

It is not request – that is בקשה, nor praise – that is שבח, nor thanks – that is הודאה, nor blessing – that is ברכה, nor supplication – that is תחינה.

תפלה is none of these and all of them.  Interestingly, the verb associated with תפלה is להתפלל, which is a reflexive form of the word פלל, meaning ‘judge’.  That renders תפלה as a process of self-judgement, or, perhaps, self-reflection.  In this vein, Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, in his introduction to ‘The Hirsch Siddur’ notes that תפלה is related to הלל – to radiate or reflect rays, meaning that ‘while God is not visible to us, we perceive the radiations of His Omnipotence in the infinite evidences of wonder which permit us to find God’.  ‘Prayer’ – our תפלה – must enable us to reflect on our lives, their purpose and our relationship with God.  Rabbi Breuer continues:

תפלה requires that we imbue ourselves ever anew with the great truth and demands which must place their stamp upon our Jewish existence and consciousness.

In other words, תפלה must provide us with Jewish direction, peace of mind and renewed God-consciousness.

2) The Talmud articulates three early perceptions of prayer based on the experience of the Avot:

Not like Avraham, who saw the focus of prayer (the site of the future Temple) as a mountain, nor like Yitzchak, who saw it as a field, but like Ya’akov, who saw it as a house. (TB Pesachim 88a, paraphrased)

We should not view תפלה and connection with the divine as an insurmountable climb (Avraham’s mountain), nor as a straightforward, equally-accessible experience (Yitzchak’s field), but as a house that can and must incorporate a range of needs, feelings and complexities.

3) Finally, a challenge from Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, who asked a question I often ask myself and I urge you to ask yourselves:

When we go to Shul or pray at home, is our goal to daven, or to have davened?  Think about it.

Sermon Notes 22/09/12 - VaYelech & Shabbat Shuvah

Torah as Poetry: Yom Kippur and the Song of the Soul

One of my favourite verses appears in this parashah:

And now – write this poem for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel: place it in their mouths, so that this poem will be for Me as testimony for the Children of Israel. (Devarim 31:19)

What is this 'poem'?  In context, it is clearly a reference to the epic song of Ha’azinu, which begins a few verses later.  In powerful biblical poetry, Ha’azinu offers a sweeping view of Jewish history, how God will always stand with us despite our many failures and a glimpse of the magnificent future that awaits us and our Land – it encapsulates the whole of Jewish reality and its aspirations.  In some Sefardi communities, children would be taught to memorise Ha’azinu, so that it will always be ‘placed in their mouths’.

Yet the rabbis also derive from this verse the last (613th) mitzvah of the Torah – to write a complete Sefer Torah (see Rambam Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1).  But if the Torah means to instruct us to write the Torah, why not say so explicitly?

I believe that the answer lies in a simple but powerful equation, that of the Torah with poetry – ‘this poem’ is the Torah, for the Torah is the song of the Jewish people.  It is not merely a code of law, nor even the record of the transformation of a remarkable family into an extraordinary people, but the song of our nation.

The words of one of the greatest Jewish poets come to mind.  Yearning for the Holy Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi sings:

I am a harp for your songs… (Kinnot: Tzion, HaLo Tishali)

As Yom Kippur approaches, it’s time to reconsider the way we think of our relationship with the Torah itself, the lifeblood of our people.  Does it make us sing?  Does it make every fibre of our being reverberate with spirituality and yearning for a more godly world?  If the answer is not yet, then make this Yom Kippur the perfect time for the Torah to play the sweet music of our souls.

Belovski in Manhattan

Congregation Ramath Orah Parashat Ki Teitzei

I am delighted to announce that I will be Scholar in Residence at Ramath Orah in Manhattan for Shabbat 31st August – 1st September.  Themes and times to be announced.

**Update**

Friday Night

Short Devar Torah on the Parashah

Shabbat Morning after Musaf

Recovering a Censored Letter: Rabbinic Responses to the Balfour Declaration

Seudah Shelishit after Minchah

Mesorah and Scientic Discovery: The Battle over Techelet

LSJS Book Group - Belovski on Frankenstein

Belovski on Frankenstein 19/07/12 - Trailer

On Thursday 19th July, I’ll be down at the LSJS library from 8.00 – 9.30pm discussing Mary Shelley’s horror story Frankenstein.

We will look at its classic ideas, but also at existential themes such as loneliness and companionship, which the book addresses in powerful ways.  To complement our discussion, I will have some thought-provoking quotes from Epicurus and the Talmud on hand.

Do join me for what I hope will be a memorable evening.  Booking details on the LSJS website here, or email to Malka to flag your intention to come along.

If you haven’t read Frankenstein, then you must – in fact, I will assume if you’re coming along or listening later online that you have.  Either buy a cheap copy or download it for free from here.

Sermon Notes 07/07/12 - Balak

When Less is More

If you'd wanted to hear my sermon, you'd have come to Shul, but...

Actually, I didn't give a sermon this week as my community had the privilege of hosting Professor Elliott Malamet from Toronto, who delivered three fascinating and thought-provoking talks - see here for details.

Yet the story of Bilam's donkey, which appears in this week's Torah reading, offers a further opportunity to explore the Rambam's approach to certain challenging biblical texts.

While it is almost universally assumed that the narrative describes an actual, physical event, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts that it was a prophetic vision - i.e. it happened only in Bilam's mind but was not observable by an outsider. As he explains:

The entire [episode] of Bilaam's journey and the words of the donkey - all were a prophetic vision. (Moreh Nevochim 2:42)

Indeed, for the Rambam, 'everywhere that the appearance or speech of an angel is mentioned, it is always a prophetic vision of dream, whether this is explicitly mentioned or not... Know this and understand it extremely well'. (ibid.)

So, frustratingly for literalists, the Rambam contends that there wasn't a talking donkey in any 'real' sense. However, this appears to be contradicted by an explicit Mishnah, which sites the 'mouth of the donkey' within a group of specially-created items:

Ten things were created at twilight on the [first] Friday evening... the mouth of the donkey.. (Mishnah, Avot 5:6)

Since the other items in the list - including the staff of Moshe, the manna and tablets of the covenant - were clearly real, physical entities, this strongly suggest that the 'mouth of the donkey' - surely a euphemism for it actually speaking - was also 'real'.

The Chief Rabbi once suggested to me that the Rambam meant that Bilam's journey actually took place; when Bilam hit the donkey, he heard its braying as human speech. It may be that the capacity for this to happen at the right moment in history was created on the first Friday afternoon in history, allowing the Rambam's non-literalist approach to square with the Mishnah.

Rambam's certainty that human beings cannot detect angels, and consequently, the 'talking donkey' must have been a vision, is consonant with his insistence that nothing in existence other than God is inherently holy. It also fits with what I would term his 'rational minimalism', the contention that God is as economic as possible when He must interfere with the natural running of the world, something I've mentioned before here. In practice, this means that God uses the minimum intervention to achieve his desired outcome - in this case, since a vision could suffice to rebuke Bilam and demonstrate that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the divine, no more miraculous event needed, or indeed, could have, occurred.

This approach remains unpopular in a Jewish world that often assumes that 'more is more' both in practice and theory. I've noticed that many speakers (and, it would seem, their audiences), assume that if two stories can illustrate a point then eight must do so better. From this perspective, when dealing with theological matters, the more overt the divine intervention, the greater the God.

The Rambam's approach challenges the validity of this view. For him, only a God who can change the course of history with the slightest intervention is truly omnipotent - 'less is more'.